Andrew Wheeler says EPA doesn’t have a ‘war with California’

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washignton Post • Posted: Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Trump administration has stripped away its regulatory authority, threatened to cut its highway funding and called its dirty waterways a “significant public health concern.”

But it isn’t picking a fight with California.

That’s what Andrew Wheeler, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, claimed about actions his office has taken recently when it comes to air and water pollution in the big blue state.

“We don’t have a war with California,” Wheeler said in an interview with The Energy 202.

Wheeler said his agency is compelled to prod the state since it is not moving quickly enough to address pollution within its own borders. In general, Wheeler suggested California took its eye off other environmental concerns to tackle an issue outside its control — climate change — that is caused by the buildup of greenhouse gas emissions mostly from elsewhere around the globe.

“I would say that California has been focused on climate change to the detriment of the other environmental programs,” Wheeler said in a nearly hour-long interview in his office at EPA headquarters on Wednesday.

Gavin Newsom (D), California’s governor who took office last January and served as San Francisco’s mayor from 2004 to 2011, took issue with the idea that his state was not doing enough to protect its environment, arguing the Trump administration has tried to undermine its ability to do so.

“Let’s face facts. The most pro-polluter White House in U.S history continually targets California because, by any measure of the scoreboard, we are beating them,” Newsom said in a statement. “Despite the president abusing the power of his office to punish his political opponents, California has successfully fended off the Trump Administration’s attacks on our environment — and we continue to assert our climate leadership on the world stage. That has got to inflame the President and Administrator Wheeler.”

The skirmish — let’s not call it a war — between President Trump and California touched off when the administration tried to freeze fuel-efficiency standards for new vehicles through 2026. The move would undo tighter mileage rules issued under Barack Obama in consultation with California, which under the Clear Air Act is the only state in the union able to write its own rules for auto emissions.

The Obama-era car standards were one of the main ways that administration sought to rein in emissions from the transportation sector, which recently surpassed power generation as the primary greenhouse gas contributor in the United States.

But the EPA, along with the Transportation Department, revoked that authority for California in September in an effort to create the new nationwide auto standard. California and other states have sued to try to stop the move.

That same month, Wheeler went on to write a letter to Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board, suggesting the federal government may withhold highway funding for the state for failing to “carry out its most basic tasks under the Clean Air Act.” The federal government has the power to withhold money for highways if it determines a state is not taking certain steps to cut air pollution.

In the interview, Wheeler said California only received that letter because it had more “state implementation plans,” which serve as blueprints for how state agencies tackle smog-forming ozone and other pollutants, awaiting federal approval than any other state.

“This was a priority that began with this administration trying to get rid the backlog,” Wheeler said. “This is not a backlog created during this administration. This is what we inherited. So they’ve been sitting at the agency for years.”

Responding in her own letter in October, Nichols said the threat of sanctioning California “is at best unfounded” since the state “has been working diligently for decades to protect its residents” from pollution. Her office is working with the EPA’s regional staff to have about 30 state implementation plans withdrawn.

Wheeler said in the interview he is not singling out California in his effort to tackle the backlog of anti-pollution plans. Twenty other states and the District of Columbia received similar written warnings.

In speeches and on social media, Trump has inveighed against California on a number of environmental issues beyond just air quality. He has threatened to cut off federal aid for fighting California’s wildfires for the state’s “terrible job of forest management” and said San Francisco — home of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D), who just led a successful effort to impeach Trump  — “is in violation of many sanitary & environmental orders.”

In their own conversations, Wheeler said Trump has brought up his unease with water quality in California. “He has been very concerned about the water issues in California and the pollution into the ocean, which is why we’re also focusing on San Francisco and we’re taking a look at water pollution across the state,” Wheeler said.

To that end, Wheeler accused state officials in yet another letter in September of failing to meet federal health standards due to large homeless populations litter the streets with trash and human waste in several communities.

With only a little more than a year left to go in Trump’s term in office, Wheeler said the agency is trying to put the finishing touches on a series of new rules, including ones overhauling how communities must test for lead in water and redefining which waterways are covered by the Clean Water Act.

“So that is certainly a huge push, is to get the major regulatory rulemakings out the door,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler also hopes to get those mileage rules that helped kick off the tension with California — in EPA jargon, called Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or “CAFE” standards — finalized in 2020, too.

“I’m hoping that maybe once we finalize our CAFE, that California will take a look at it and say ‘it’s a good proposal’ and they’re not going to continue to fight it,” Wheeler said.

He paused, and added that maybe he is an “eternal optimist.”

But all of that isn’t to say Wheeler and his team are not preparing for a possible Trump second term.

“We’ve already started planning for the first two years of the next term,” Wheeler said. “Which I fully believe we will have.”